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Rachel Dolezal: How not to be an ally

I'm not late to this party: I've been slowly digesting the news of a white woman passing for Black and reflecting upon it and the copious commentary that followed.

The story has been short-circuited, as it turns out, with the news that Dolezal once sued her university for discriminating against her in favour of African Americans. In fact, that underlies my feelings from the start that her actions have amounted to perhaps the most profound expression of white privilege I have ever seen. She not only tipped her hand in that lawsuit, in a common-or-garden act of white supremacy, but has since, in effect, managed to occupy the Black social body.

Indeed, I've been idly wondering if she hasn't been engaging all along in an on-going satirical commentary on identity politics. She's touched every base, after all, including a too-obvious parallel with the recent Caitlin Jenner controversy. As the engaging intellectual Stuart Parker provocatively asked on Facebook, as he drew the two strands together, why is gender a social construct whereas race still seems to be grounded in the body, judging from the outrage among progressives?

The answer, of course, is that both are social constructs. Gender and race are imposed by society upon the body. As we have seen in the case of Jenner, gender can paradoxically defy and transcend the body, generated by the social dialectic of gender binarism. But I would argue that race, while popularly expressed in binary fashion (black vs. white, recalling Governor George Wallace reference to Blacks as "the opposite race"), has had a different social trajectory. Even one drop of blood could mark a person as "Black": there is no obvious gender equivalent to this doctrine of contamination. "Effeminate" looks and manners may single out men for misogynist ridicule, but they clearly don't define them socially as women.

"Passing for white" was and may still be a matter of survival, or at least of dignity and a fighting chance, for Blacks in America. But passing for Black? A careful look at motives is required: while I cannot rule out the possibility that a few individuals may indeed feel themselves to be Blacks trapped in white bodies, such is clearly not the case for Dolezal.

As one who has long been suspicious of those who claim to "identify with" or even "love" another race or ethnic group -- that's just racism or ethnocentrism in the mirror -- I cannot view this episode as benign. It further muddies the already turbulent waters of social relations that turn on the oppression of one defined group by another. We are told that Dolezal did good work in the NAACP. But playing Lady Bountiful is not the way to go about it. She has undermined her work by pretending that racial identity is a matter of choice, a claim that most if not all racialized people would reject out of hand.

Live and let live. But not if one's actions intensify the very oppression that one is allegedly fighting. Dolezal's grotesque intrusion stands as perhaps the limit case of how not to be an ally in the struggle against racism and racialization.

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